Less Traveled

Page Ivey



Hidden in plain site: The story behind the S.C. Statehouse

Posted 3/6/2013 11:16:00 AM

When I was a student at the University of South Carolina, I had the good fortune to work for the General Assembly as a page (go ahead, say it, everyone does: “Page the page.”)

Every day (and later as a news reporter who occasionally had to go to the State House to interview people or watch legislators in action), I walked through one of the most beautiful historic buildings in the state. But, like so many others who work and pass through there, I don’t think I fully appreciated it.

But all that changed, for me at least, after an extensive renovation of the building in mid-1990s.

Most of the $50 million renovation was to install a seismic protection system in the event of an earthquake and to update electrical and mechanical systems to make the building safer for the dozens of folks working there. But a great deal of effort was put into restoring the 19th century details and decorative elements of the building that make history come alive: the large windows to allow as much natural light as possible, the decorative transoms that were so prevalent in construction of the day, the large marble staircases that have carried thousands of South Carolinians conducting the business of the state, the vaulted brickwork in the first floor hallways and the refurbished interior of the dome.

But one of the most startling changes was the cleaning of the iconic dome, returning it to its shiny copper sheen, albeit temporary, before oxygen in the air began to darken it. Before the renovation it had been a distinctive green – think Statue of Liberty green.

The newly revealed beauty of the completed State House belies its rough beginnings.

When Columbia was created 1786 as new state capital (Charleston was apparently a little too far to reach by horseback from the Upstate), a wooden building originally was used by lawmakers. After 60 years of that, the General Assembly decided a more permanent, fire-proof structure would be better, and construction began in 1851 on what eventually would become the current State House.

There were disagreements with architects (the kind of disagreements that require dismantling the original construction for safety concerns) then a disagreement with the northern half of the U.S. (the kind of disagreement that ends with U.S. troops burning the entire city of Columbia as well as damaging the still-under-construction State House with cannon fire).

Bronze stars on the State House today mark where cannonballs hit.

The ensuing poverty of the state and city after the Civil War delayed completion of the State House until 1907.

The outside of the State House is a treasure-trove of history as well. On the northeast corner is a statue of former Gov. James Byrnes, who also served as a congressman, then U.S. Supreme Court justice before becoming director of the Office of War Mobilization during World War II and secretary of state immediately thereafter. The Confederate soldier monument at sits Main and Gervais streets and a memorial to South Carolinians who have served in the U.S. armed forces in on the Assembly Street side. On the South Main side of the building is a statue of South Carolina’s longest serving U.S. senator, Strom Thurmond.

The State House grounds also has an African-American monument that tells the history of black South Carolinians from their arrival in chains through emancipation and the civil rights movement to emergence as leaders in fields as diverse as law, medicine, science and aerospace. That monument is on the east side of the building.

The grounds also feature native plants and trees that in a few weeks will be awash in color as the azaleas bloom.

Free guided tours of the State House are available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday. Note that the General Assembly is in session Tuesday-Thursday from January to June. If you want to avoid crowds, summer and fall are your best bets. Mondays are good during in-session months. Fridays, especially in the spring, are typically filled with South Carolina schoolchildren. Afternoons are typically better than mornings during session days and you can enjoy a stroll around the grounds any time. Call ahead to confirm tour times (803) 734-2430.